Gearing UP for Ultraneering

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Big Impossible Sounding Ideas

Photo Credit: Ras Vaughan

There’s a particular type of ill-advised, hare-brained scheme that resonates with me on a fundamental level. When an adventure of this sort first presents itself, whether via outside influence or internal genesis, I experience both a physical and mental response. The physical response includes the sound of blood rushing in my ears, chills up and down my spine, sharpening and narrowing of my vision, and racing heart. Mentally my response is along the lines of, “That sounds impossible. I have to give it a try.” I’ve come to think of projects of this sort as Big Impossible Sounding Ideas.

As intimidating as they may seem at first conception, I’ve learned over the years that Big Impossible Sounding Ideas can be deconstructed into smaller and smaller component parts. Those parts can then be evaluated and explicated until a way is found to make each of them possible. Then all of those little possibilities can be reassembled to make that Big Impossible Sounding Idea not only a possibility but a reality. This is a process which can take months or even years to run its course while my brain chews on the problem, evaluating information, formulating and reformulating plans, and passively letting possibilities bounce around my skull to see if any of them take root. And once I decide that something is humanly possible, the all-consuming question for me then becomes, “Am I the Human Being to do it?” That’s exactly how things played out when I first heard about Chad Kellogg’s idea for the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop.

The Cowlitz Connection and the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop

In 2015 Richard Kresser and I attempted a project I had dreamed up to combine the 93 mile Wonderland Trail around the base of Mount Rainier with a traverse of the summit. It’s not hyperbole to say that Mount Rainier is responsible for making me the man I am today, and I find myself continually drawn to it, persistently pursuing new ways to experience the mountain as completely as possible. This attempt to both summit and circumambulate the mountain in a single push I had dubbed the Rainier Wonder Route. Due to iffy weather conditions for glacier travel, delays to our summit, and slow movement due in part to carrying traditional climbing gear, we failed to complete our intended route. But we were happy with what we did complete: an unsupported summit traverse linked via the Wonderland Trail over the Cowlitz Divide. We dubbed this the Cowlitz Connection (detailed trip report here:

However, the most important thing to come out of this adventure was a passing mention of an even grander vision for experiencing Rainier to the fullest, as conceived by legendary Seattle climber Chad Kellogg. My long-time friend and inspiration David Gottlieb had climbed with Chad for years, making the first ascent of Pangbuk Ri in Nepal in good style together, as well as attempts on Lunag Ri. When I told David of my plans for the Rainier Wonder Route in a Facebook message, he said it reminded him of Chad’s Infinity Loop idea, which he then described to me. Chad’s plan was to climb to the summit, descend the opposite side, take the Wonderland back to his starting point, again climb to the summit and descend the opposite side, then follow the Wonderland Trail the opposite direction back to his starting point. This route would form the rough shape of a figure eight laid on its side, or an infinity sign. (Tragically, Chad Kellogg was killed by rockfall while climbing on Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia in February of 2014, never having attempted his ingenious Infinity Loop idea on Mount Rainier.)

When I read those words it seemed like the universe opened up to me and an angelic choir sang. This was a Big Impossible Sounding Idea of the highest caliber. First and foremost, the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop was elegant. I continued on with planning and preparation for my clunky and awkward Rainier Wonder Route, but from that point on the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop had taken on a life of its own in my head. As is its want, my mind had sunk its teeth into the idea and wouldn’t let go. For me, learning of Chad’s Infinity Loop idea was like finding an uncompleted painting by an impressionist master, and I was humbled, honored, and fascinated by the prospect of being a part of bringing it to life.

Photo Credit: Gavin Woody Photo Credit: Gavin Woody

The Beauty Of Not Fitting In

I love the ill-defined fringes of adventuring. To me, the gaps in between precise descriptions and clear demarcations are where some of the most interesting possibilities lie: specifically, in the potential impossibilities which those gaps imply. In a sense, naming a thing, constraining a methodology to a single term, implies having conquered or subdued it. Aside from the pitfalls of hubris obvious in so doing, it can also limit thinking and narrow vision, diminishing the scope of perceived possibilities. Projects such as the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop require the physical and mental skills from ultrarunning, fastpacking, and mountaineering. In a venn diagram this amalgamation of skillsets forms a small and oddly shaped overlap, but it also forms a bullseye, because it’s exactly where I want to be.

One of the challenges I find so interesting in projects that blur the boundaries between sporting disciplines is kitting up. When preparing for an adventure that isn’t easily described by an existing term, it’s difficult to track down the gear needed, if, indeed, it even exists. More often than not it’s a matter of misappropriating the most appropriate gear from that endogenous to one or more of the methodologies involved. But on rare occasions you find a key piece of gear which is uniquely well suited to the atypical scope of a journey whose goal is more the shifting of paradigms than a physical destination. When Altra introduced the Lone Peak NeoShell in the fall of 2015 I immediately recognized it as being a keystone piece of gear toward my goal of exploring the rarified domain wherein fastpacking, ultrarunning, and mountaineering overlap.

A Trial By Fire For The Lone Peak NeoShell

On the Cowlitz Connection it was made glaringly obvious that, for an unsupported attempt, carrying traditional mountaineering boots in addition to trailrunning shoes was untenable. Two kits was one too many. I needed footwear that could do something no footwear manufacturer had ever imagined a shoe needing to do: be warm enough and waterproof enough to cover thousands of feet of vertical gain across glaciers and reach the summit of Washington’s iconic Mount Rainier not once but twice, have the ruggedness and traction necessary to scramble up the crumbling rock of the Disappointment Cleaver and many long stretches of technical trail, and provide the comfort and reliability to tick off more than 120 total miles and more than 40,000 feet of elevation gain.

As herculean a task as a double summit traverse and circumambulation of Mount Rainier may sound, it’s an endurance challenge moreso than a display of technical mountain climbing. Yes, it requires basic mountaineering skills for safe glacier travel, and there are worst-case scenarios that could call for more technical techniques in a self-rescue situation, but it doesn’t involve front pointing alpine ice with a pair of ice tools. Making a summit traverse by ascending the Disappointment Cleaver route and descending the Emmons Glacier and Inter Glacier is a matter of linking together the two easiest routes on the mountain. It would meet the most droll characterization of mountaineering, that being a long, slow hike uphill in the snow. It was the perfect opportunity to explore my minimalist assertions of how little shoe was needed and to really put the Lone Peak NeoShell through its paces.

Photo Credit: Gavin Woody Photo Credit: Gavin Woody

Tasting Infinity On & Around Mount Rainier

A month or so before my climbing partner Gavin Woody and I began our Mount Rainier Infinity Loop odyssey, I had another epiphany. In a moment of sudden insight, I realized that the Infinity Loop paradigm could be applied to any standalone mountain, and that the iconic volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest offered ample opportunities to test this theory right in my backyard. Again my brain was off on flights of fancy, only to then begin deconstructing those ideas and reassembling them into potential possibilities. Specifically, Mount Adams kept rising to the top, as if saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”

My initial ambition had been to solo the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop as the purest expression of alpinism and good style. However, not only would that have been foolhardy, it’s unlikely the Mount Rainier National Park Climbing Rangers would have issued me a solo permit for so grand an undertaking and with so meager a climbing resume’. Returning to the idea of meager overlaps on venn diagrams, there are very few people with the mental and physical skillset necessary to attempt this project, not to mention to proclivity to do so. But Gavin Woody stood out in my mind, not only because he is a talented ultrarunner with 200 mile experience to match or exceed my own, as well as being an experienced mountaineer, but because of his vocabulary. Gavin had coined the term “Ultraneering” to describe routes which combine ultra-distance foot travel with the need for mountaineering skills. The fact that he invested enough time thinking about such projects to promulgate this portmanteau made him the obvious choice, and he signed on to the project after only the briefest of descriptions.

“To Infinity” episode:

Benefitting from an absolutely perfect weather window, Gavin and I put up an official time of 99 hours and 7 minutes on the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop, sneaking in under the three digit mark by less than an hour. We ran two unsupported loops, one clockwise and one counterclockwise, traversing the summit of Mount Rainier twice, and resupplying and sleeping briefly at our cars at the midway point in Paradise. We got all of our water from natural sources and did not drop off any of our gear or garbage except at our cars. So technically it was a self-supported project comprised of two unsupported loops. And for the record, I did forage some berries along the route.

An Armchair Alpinist long before I ever touched an ice axe, I’ve been strongly influenced in my approach to adventure by the values of climbers such as Chad Kellogg and David Gottlieb. “Fast and Light”, “sustainable pace”, “fair means”, and “good style” are all precepts I hold dear, and they are all paradigms I have applied to fastpacking, thru-hiking and adventure running, but that had their origins in Alpinism. I was especially Blessed to do my best to apply these values to a dream route of Chad’s that he was never able to attempt. I’m certain it would have looked a bit different done by him. There were a few specifics that I didn’t know about his vision of the Infinity Loop and Gavin and I made a couple small choices that are ours alone. But our goal was to complete it in a fashion that would honor and propagate the inspiration we took from Chad’s life and adventures, and I feel we did that to the best of our abilities.


Zero Limits & Infinite Possibilities

Once the haze of exhaustion had lifted from my mind and my time on Rainier with Gavin had begun to fade into the unreality of the recent past, Mount Adams once again garnered my attention. On many levels I had achieved far more than I ever thought possible. But as with summiting mountains, when you surpass one goal, you catch a glimpse of the next. While Mount Adams is a decided step down from Mount Rainier as far as mountains go, my plan for the Mount Adams Infinity Loop was to take it to the next level in style: solo and completely unsupported (no resupply). There’s a scary and exhilarating purity in solo wilderness travel that lends itself to an intense experience of the now. While the Mount Adams Infinity Loop would be less technical, less dangerous, and less challenging objectively, on a subjective level I intended to step up my game.

For the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop I had worn the original Lone Peak NeoShells, with a standard running shoe collar height. With wool socks my feet were comfortable, although it’s important to note that we were moving constantly. We took a few very short stops, but no extended breaks up high, so my blood was always pumping and my body generating heat from within. I did notice that during some extended sidehilling while descending the Emmons Glacier my ankles got a bit worked, especially with crampons eliminating any slip.

Altra had released the new Lone Peak NeoShell Mids just in time for my Mount Adams Infinity Loop, so I had them ship me a pair right away. I was mildly concerned when they arrived because they look remarkably like a lightweight hiking boot, which is anathema to me.

I’m an old-school backpacker who became a back-of-the-packer, so I’m all too familiar with stiff, heavy traditional hiking boots. I had abandoned them many years ago. Whether it be blisters from a lipping heal or cramped toebox, foot pain from atrophying muscles, or lower back strain from lifting a heavy boot tens of thousands of times a day during a hike, I found that I was consistently injured by the very boots that were supposed to protect me. A decade before Altra even existed as a company, I concluded on my own that a lightweight, flexible shoe that allowed my foot to move according to its natural function was the only way to go. In fact, I wore trailrunning shoes to hike in long before I ever became a runner.


However, after trying on the NeoShell Mids and fitting my crampons to them, I had my thoughts confirmed: they were the right choice for the Mount Adams Infinity Loop. The fit and ride was indistinguishable from the standard NeoShells, and thanks to the design, if the mid-high collar felt too restrictive during any of the running sections, I could simply unlace the top two eyelets to allow a greater range of motion. And when I was using crampons, the mid-high collar would give just that little extra bit of support to my ankles without immobilizing them, as well as some added warmth.

Mount Adams Infinity Loop

When all was said and done it took me 56 hours 20 minutes to cover the 60 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain that make up the Mount Adams Infinity Loop. The extended scramble up the North Cleaver was fun and engaging, especially with Mount Rainier watching my back. Every time I glanced over my shoulder or turned around to take a short sit break, there she was watching over me; uninterested, perhaps, yet ever present.

During my first summit traverse I was greeted with 50+ mph winds and blowing cloud, which drenched me. But by keeping my wet layers on and moving through the night slowly enough not to sweat, but briskly enough to produce body heat I was able to dry my layers on the go. By the time I had completed the first loop the morning of the second day, my layers were dry and I felt I could safely continue.

My second summit traverse was a beautiful bluebird day, with dusk hitting just as I was beginning to descend. As with the first summit, I was the last person on top for the day, and glissaded down the South Spur route in solitude. The second loop included The Gap, a trailless section across the Yakima Indian Reservation that entailed bushwhacking, off-trail travel, and route finding. Sidehilling 2000 feet down scree slopes and rock hopping across chocolate-milk-colored glacier fed creeks make for slow travel, but really put the ‘adventure’ in Adventure Running.

Test pieces for my theories about Human possibility are what I crave, and the Mount Adams Infinity Loop presented exactly the kind of big question marks that I enjoy trying to answer. As it turned out, my suppositions about being able to use a single piece of footwear for everything from Class II scrambling to snow and glacier travel to running smooth trail to descending technical scree slopes paid off. The Lone Peak NeoShell Mids were that key piece of gear which made it possible to face all of these challenges without having to carry an extra pair of shoes or boots. And saving that weight and space in my pack made it possible to complete the entire 56 hour adventure solo, unsupported and unresupplied. For me, the Altra slogan “Zero Limits” is far more than just a marketing catchphrase; it’s a cultural rallying cry, an ethic, an ideal, a call to action. And the Lone Peak NeoShell is a brilliant new embodiment of that Zero Limits philosophy.


Living Zero Limits & Our Ancient Selves

It would be irresponsible of me to imply that anyone can just lace up a pair of insulated running shoes and go galivanting about glaciers and traipsing over the tops of mountains. It takes very specific mental and physical skills and training. It takes well-thought-out gear choices. It takes an understanding of fueling and provisioning. And it takes planning, research, and preparation.

However, it would be equally egregious of me to imply that I am any sort of extraordinarily talented or capable athlete. If I’m famous for anything, it’s for being slow, but unstoppable. My career defining race moments, mathematically, put me dead center of the pack. I wasn’t a runner in high school or college and have never had any professional coaching. My wilderness and survival skills are mostly self-taught. I have no technical rock climbing skills. I only have five significant mountain summits to my credit, and four of those are from my two Infinity Loop projects. In short, I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake; I’m just an ordinary Human Being.

But a Human Being is exactly what I want and need to be to accomplish the interdisciplinary projects that resonate with me. Specialization is a modern aberration. Our hunter-gatherer forbearers were jacks-of-all-trades, ancient MacGyvers, adepts at improvising, problems solving, and thinking on the fly. Hominids thrive under adversity; it’s ease and abundance that slowly kill us. Bipedalism, the ability to travel upright on two feet, is the behavior that most distinguishes Humankind from the rest of our animal brothers and sisters. Moving through beautiful and challenging places is what enables me to most completely experience my own essential Humanity and access the amazing reserves of hidden strength that are so characteristic of ordinary Human Beings. And ordinary Human Beings are capable of amazing and extraordinary things.

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